Game design careers include various jobs that companies need to create engaging video games. Professionals in this field must possess multiple skills, many of which they can hone by majoring in game design or a related field.
Read on to learn more about careers in video game design and how you can earn a job by furthering your education.
Sladic / E+ / Getty Images
Why Pursue a Career in Game Design?
Careers in game design require creativity, advanced computer skills, and a passion for video games. Additionally, professionals in this field must perform well under pressure and feel comfortable working long hours as a game nears completion.
Companies that release video games often use a typical corporate structure in which experienced designers can advance and have a more significant role during a game's production process.
Game Design Career Outlook
Careers in game design, like most jobs, pay more experienced professionals higher salaries. Other factors that can influence how much you earn include your professional portfolio and whether games you worked on previously received high critical acclaim, sold well, or won awards.
Additionally, the field's growth plays a role. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the need for multimedia artists should grow by 4% between 2018 and 2028.
The following table highlights four common game design careers and the median annual salary for professionals with different experience levels. Please use the embedded links to learn more about each position and its salary potential.
Skills Gained with a Game Design Degree
Below are several skills that game design students gain over the course of their program.
- Initial Concepts
Like an author outlining a novel, a game designer must know to organize their thoughts and plan a game from beginning to end. This process requires organizational and interpersonal skills, incorporating feedback, and writing multiple drafts.
- Design Documentation
As a game passes the initial concepts stage, game designers create design documentation that keeps the game's essential components -- story and gameplay -- intact throughout the development process. This document helps a design team stay on track and ensures that the final product reflects what the team decided upon at the end of the initial concepts stage.
- Game Balancing
A video game should offer a challenge but not feel impossible to the player. Also, developers must locate and fix technical bugs that detract from the gameplay experience. Game development studios employ game testers to provide crucial feedback. This skill emphasizes interpersonal communication, as game designers interact with testers daily.
- Interactive Storytelling
The ability to create a beautiful world represents only one part of making a great video game. Game design programs teach aspiring professionals how to write and implement an interactive story, one in which the player feels in control of the situation and that their decisions matter. One way to hone this skill involves breaking down the storytelling components of great games.
- Interface Design
Game designers face a unique challenge when it comes to interface design, as game studios often release the same game on multiple platforms. Each version of the game should have controls that feel natural. Also, the interface that players see on the screen should not detract from the gameplay experience.
Game Design Career Paths
Like any professional field, careers in game design allow you to specialize. The following specializations represent just a few that programs may offer.
Some video game companies incorporate educational elements into their games or create games solely intended for educational purposes. Courses within this specialization teach game designers how to think like a teacher. The curriculum emphasizes online learning content, learning environments, and technical writing.
Planners and managers ensure that a game company runs smoothly by making hiring decisions, giving feedback, and tracking finances. Planning courses can include technology management, the entrepreneurial mind, and software project management.
- Creative Content
Even if a game has a fantastic story, it must still feature incredible graphics and sound to attract players who want an engaging experience. A creative content specialization includes coursework in modeling and animation, advanced audio production and techniques, and entertainment media production.
Many top game design programs understand that no two students have the same academic and career goals. As a result, some programs allow degree-seekers to create a custom specialization. Learners work with an academic advisor to discuss career aspirations and align them with course offerings.
How to Start Your Career in Game Design
Enrolling in an associate, bachelor's, or master's program in game design allows you to develop the skills that major video game developers -- Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo -- want in job applicants. Once you begin an entry-level position, you can further hone your skills and build a professional portfolio.
Besides preparing you for a career, a degree may also qualify you for professional advancement. Your future employer may restrict management-level positions to employees with a bachelor's or master's degree.
Associate Degree in Game Design
An associate degree in game design teaches fundamental skills that game designers need to succeed in the field.
Many top programs emphasize basic programming, Agile development, and multiple software suites. Graduates often have an academic portfolio they can show prospective employers. Also, some game design degrees do not require general education courses, allowing you to focus on knowledge and skills relevant to your future career.
The following three careers represent entry-level positions you can earn with an associate degree. Use the embedded links to learn more about each position's salary potential.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Game Design?
- Game Tester
Game development companies hire game testers to identify issues that relate to gameplay, storytelling, and technical glitches. A game tester may play the same segment dozens of times during the process, responding to developers' changes after each playthrough. Additionally, many game testers work as independent contractors.
Median Salary: $38,970
- Junior Game Designer
An entry-level position, junior game design involves working under an experienced designer while creating new features and balancing gameplay. If an employee excels in this role, they can become a designer or senior game designer. Like other positions open to game professionals with an associate degree, employment may end after a project's completion.
Median Salary: $64,890
- 3D Modeler
3D modelers create a game's three-dimensional objects. Besides programming skills, modelers must have strong artistic skills to ensure that each model looks as realistic as possible. A 3D modeler can either work for a game development company or as an independent contractor.
Median Salary: $49,250
Bachelor's Degree in Game Design
A bachelor's degree provides you with additional opportunities to prepare for a career in video game design. You can take more advanced courses and select a specialization. Typical courses in a top video game design degree include creative presentation, scripting for designers, and introduction to programming.
Below are five careers you can earn with a bachelor's degree. However, some positions may also require professional experience.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Game Design?
- Graphic Designer
Graphic designers use their artistic skills to make a video game visually appealing and engaging to audiences. They collaborate with other design team members to create a game's artistic style. Graphic designers who work in the video game field also have programming knowledge. These skills allow them to turn concept art into a finished product.
Median Salary: $45,260
- Video Game Designer
Video game designers take on different responsibilities throughout the development process, including creating a story outline, designing a user interface, and choosing music and sound effects that enhance the gameplay experience. Senior designers have a greater influence on a game's overall style and direction.
Median Salary: $65,040
- Multimedia Artist and Animator
Multimedia artists and animators leverage their artistic abilities to create magnificent settings and characters that look and move realistically. These professionals have in-depth experience with multimedia software suites and can bring a director or writer's vision to life.
Median Salary: $57,430
- Game Programmer
Game programmers create the code that turns a video game's script, music, and art into a playable product. Job responsibilities include debugging code, creating original code that responds immediately to a player's actions, and working with game testers to remedy technical flaws. Programmers must also adapt code to one or more game console's technical limitations.
Median Salary: $64,740
- Game Artist
Unlike multimedia artists, game artists do not use complex computer software to create gameplay. Instead, they produce storyboards and character design sketches for the senior production team: the game's director, producer, and writer. A game artist's final product influences a game's overall look and design tremendously.
Median Salary: $56,010
Master's Degree in Game Design
Even if you hold a bachelor's degree in a different subject, you can still enter the game design field by earning a master's degree. These two-year programs help learners from diverse academic backgrounds build upon computer science and creative skills. A master's curriculum can feature courses in game engine design and development, level design, and artificial intelligence for gameplay.
With a master's, you can explore jobs within and outside of the video game development field. Some of the following careers apply to career opportunities in computer networking, defense, manufacturing, and consulting.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Game Design?
- Network Programmer
Large video game companies have extensive computer networks to ensure that team members can communicate and collaborate effectively. Network programmers build and maintain these systems. Additional responsibilities include ensuring that the systems remain secure, protecting the company's intellectual property against hacking attempts and other malicious actions.
Median Salary: $71,180
- Audio Programmer
Although audio programmers do not create the sound effects and music that make games great, they ensure that these engaging elements work correctly during gameplay. Using software, they incorporate sound chips into each scene and ensure that all sounds happen at the right time. Additional responsibilities include adapting sounds to different game environments.
Median Salary: $103,830
- Technical Artist
Technical artists represent the intermediate step between the game artists who design a game's artistic style and the programmers who turn that art into a playable game. These professionals manage workflow and ensure that game designers have the necessary art to create a digital world and its characters.
Median Salary: $65,750
- Software Engineer
Complex video game software requires trained professionals to create and debug it. Software engineers ensure that a game's code runs smoothly. After a game's release, they create and release updates that provide a better user experience. Many software engineers have a degree in computer engineering or computer science.
Median Salary: $85,550
- Mobile Engineer
Mobile engineers write software for mobile devices like smartphones. A typical engineer specializes in one mobile software platform, such as iOS or Android. Mobile engineering requires professionals to collaborate with peers and managers to ensure a game's success.
Median Salary: $97,610
How to Advance Your Career in Game Design
After earning a degree and earning an entry-level job in video game design, you can start exploring ways to advance your career. Depending on your employer, gaining a promotion or raise may require one or more professional certifications or continuing education courses.
Even if your employer does not require either certifications or continuing education courses, both still offer a tremendous advantage. These opportunities teach the latest skills that can help you become better at your job.
Certifications and/or Licensure
You do not need a state-issued license to work as a game designer. However, both professional organizations and universities create certification programs that you can complete 100% online. These certification programs resemble college courses, and academic requirements can include working with peers on a project.
The following list represents just a few excellent certification programs that help new and experienced game designers excel.
- C# Programming - Unity Game Development Certification
- Complete C# Unity Developer 2D Course
- Computer Science for Game Development
In addition to certifications, you can further your career by completing continuing education courses, many of which colleges and professional organizations offer for free. Others may charge a small fee. No matter the cost, these courses represent a significant cost savings compared to a traditional bachelor's or master's program.
These courses take less time to complete than a certification, and many include instructional videos that you can rewatch if necessary.
The following courses all emphasize computer programming fundamentals, making them an excellent choice for professionals with limited or no computer science knowledge.
Now that you know more about how certifications and continuing education courses can enhance your career prospects, research the linked opportunities and continue searching for those that you need for career success. Also, you can learn more about resources for game design majors later on in this article.
In addition to virtual resources, do not forget the importance of networking before and after you attain a career in video game design. A positive relationship with peers and supervisors can lead to lucrative and fulfilling job opportunities.
How to Switch Your Career to Game Design
Many professionals in different fields who have a passion for gaming consider switching careers. Typical transitions involve people who have many of the same skills that game design careers require. Careers that most closely relate to game design include computer programming and illustration.
As you explore game design careers, you may discover that none of your skills align with what employers need. However, you can gain these skills by earning a professional certificate or degree. Many of these programs take place entirely online, allowing you to continue working full time while you learn.
Where Can You Work as a Game Design Professional?
Most game designers take one of two paths after graduation: working for a game company or becoming a freelance designer. Both offer distinct advantages.
You likely know about the big companies that sell the most video games each year. They employ tens of thousands of employees and have offices all over the world. By revenue alone, the following companies dominate the video gaming market.
However, just because a game sells well does necessarily reflect its quality. If you want to work for a company that values quality over quantity, you should explore opportunities at the following companies. Each produced one of more of the most critically acclaimed video games of the 2010s.
Freelance and Consulting Services
Besides working for a game development company, you can explore freelance and consulting opportunities. Freelancing provides tremendous freedom as to when and where you work. Also, you can avoid living in a metropolitan area that has a high cost of living. However, freelancers cannot rely on a steady paycheck and may lose work at any time.
The number of careers in game design varies among states and cities. Locations with a large number of tech jobs, such as where a prominent technology company has a headquarters, typically have opportunities for new and experienced game designers.
The following list represents the top U.S. cities for careers in video game design.
- Austin, Texas
- Seattle, Washington
- Los Angeles, California
- San Francisco, California
These cities have numerous job openings and multiple game design companies. More than 60 game design companies are based in Seattle.
Resources for Game Design Majors
As game design majors master content knowledge, they can enhance their educational experience by joining a professional organization or taking an open course. Organizations allow students and professionals to network, while open courses convey in-demand skills at little to no cost. The following resources can help you make the most of your degree.
- Professional Organizations
There are several professional organizations that provide scholarships for game design students. These organizations also provide networking and career development opportunities.
International Game Developers Association: The IGDA has over 90 chapters spread across the globe. The association is dedicated to networking, continued education, and advocacy for game development careers and studies. The IGDA hosts annual conferences to discuss international legislation, major industry achievements, and professional development.
Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interactions: This is a unique professional organization that is dedicated to the ways humans interact with technology. The SIGCHI has chapters across the globe. The group publishes a journal and magazine collecting annual conference highlights, articles, and media that focus on computer-human interactions.
Games Learning Society: GLS members occasionally host open courses online, such as "Video Games and Learning" on Coursera (listed in the section below). The GLS also hosts annual conferences with a doctoral consortium and workshops dedicated to a philosophy of playful learning.
Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences: Students searching for game design and development scholarships can apply to the Randy Pausch Scholarship Fund or the Mark Beaumont Scholarship Fund. This 20,000-member organization is well-known for hosting the D.I.C.E. Awards, which celebrate achievements in gaming.
- Open Courseware
Several prominent schools, such as MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, have uploaded their game design curricula for online audiences to access for free. Keep in mind that these courses are for personal enrichment and do not yield college credits after completion.
Gamification - University of Pennsylvania: This is a Coursera program provided by the University of Pennsylvania. Instructor Kevin Werbach discusses how game theory and strategy apply to other disciplines such as business and finance. Webach covers the psychology of motivation and incentive, which drives the actions of gamers, investors, employees, and customers.
Game Design - MIT: Both undergraduate and graduate students can participate in this MIT course led by Philip Tan and Jason Begy. Participants gain access to audio lectures, projects, and transcripts covering the design and theory of tabletop games. Students engage with concepts such as iterative design, prototyping, probability, genre, and puzzles. Students design their own card game, board game, and a game for a client by the end of this course.
Game Design - edX: This seven-week course involves six content units that emphasize design iteration, user testing, and paper and digital prototyping. Learners use Gameblox software to hone new skills. The program attracts prospective and current game designers who want to learn new skills. After the course, students can receive an edX certificate for a small fee.
Introduction to Game Development With Unity - Udemy: Both game design students and professionals turn to Udemy to gain additional skills that help them create a strong professional portfolio. This course introduces learners to Unity, a free game-creation software platform. Coursework emphasizes creating in-game objects, lighting effects, and camera angles. Users can preview this course for free.
Introduction to Game Design - California Institute of the Arts: This introductory course covers simple games, game mechanics, and storytelling. Learners work together over four weeks, and the capstone project involves creating an original board game. This course does not require computer programming skills.
- Publications - Open Access Game Design Journals
Online journals can help students and current game designers stay current on ethics, politics, business trends, and best practices in game design. These periodicals typically contain cutting-edge tech developments and academic observations.
Game Studies: This periodical is dedicated to multidisciplinary advancements within the field of gaming. The editorial board is composed of representatives from the IT University of Copenhagen, Lund University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and researchers from Finland. Game Studies welcomes submissions from international scholars and professionals. New issues are released twice a year.
International Journal of Design: This is a multidisciplinary journal dedicated to various facets of design, including visual communications, animation, user interface, and gaming design. The first volume was released in 2007, and new issues are published three times a year. Writers are encouraged to submit reviews, original articles, and design case studies that are professionally or academically relevant.
Ada Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology: This is a feminist publication managed, edited, and published by Fembot Collective and the University of Oregon. Articles dive deep into gaming theory, gender studies, and queer rhetoric. Ada welcomes feminist submissions on technology, gaming, media, and gender. New issues are released twice a year.
International Journal of Computer Games Technology: This journal, founded in 2007, is dedicated to advancements in gaming technology and interactive media. Readers can find over 100 articles within the IJCGT archives, which explore subjects like body motion sensors, motivational gaming elements, auditory gaming enhancement, and game immersion psychology.
- Publications - Game Design Books
There are many technical guides to game design available in both print and digital formats. These volumes emphasize the importance of various skill sets, including programming, storyboarding, illustration, and marketing. Some of these authors are responsible for penning stories for some of the most popular modern video games.
The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses: This book explores the fundamentals of gaming by exploring popular board games, video games, card games, and other types of interactive media. Author Jesse Schell describes the basic skills that game designers must cultivate in order to succeed in their field. Schell delves into the elements that create a unique and fun game experience, such as theme, problems, loops, and psychology.
A Theory of Fun for Game Design: Author Raph Koster delves into what individuals learn from games, the challenges they have with learning, and the place of gaming in our culture.
Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design: Scott Rogers has put together a comprehensive guide for game designers and developers. This book is available in both print and digital formats. Level Up! is full of nods to geek culture, with references to n00bs, character tropes, and common gaming memes. This book teaches readers to design a game from scratch, from writing the story to distributing your title and making a profit.
The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design: You might recognize Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten from their work on the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. These two writers distill their years of game creation in this how-to volume for aspiring game makers. They take a very direct approach to writing and design, walking readers through storytelling, structure, character formation, and team interactions.
- Publications - Online Game Design Magazines
Digital format game magazines are quickly overtaking print publications. The advantage to a digital periodical is that columnists and contributors can illustrate their points with graphics, videos, and interactive widgets. Below are several key magazines in the field.
Gamasutra: This digital publication focuses on the creative and business aspects of game creation. Gamasutra has enjoyed a lengthy online presence, appearing on the Internet back in 1997 to supplement its print publication. Gamasutra is split into four sections: console games, mobile games, online games, and indie games.
Edge: Edge publishes features on current gaming trends, news on business developments within the gaming industry, and reviews of upcoming titles. They also have a unique "Get into Games" section that demystifies the gaming industry as a career field, posting interviews and biographies about professionals who are currently working on major releases.
Game Developer Magazine: Game Developer was the sister publication to Gamasutra, and it enjoyed a print run between 1994 to 2013. The entire archive is now available as a free digital download. GD was released on a monthly basis, which means readers can view the extensive library of over 200 issues. Articles include historical industry information, reviews, and interviews.
ACM Interactions: This is the official online magazine of the Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interactions. Features cover topics like haptics and wearable game controllers to steampunk UI designs.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is game design a good career?
Game design presents professionals with many challenges, including a hectic work environment and long hours. However, if you thrive in this kind of fast-paced environment, you should flourish in a game design career. To find out if the profession matches your personality, consider interning at a game company.
- Are video game designers in high demand?
Since 2004, the need for video game designers in the United States has dropped by over 30%. However, not every state experienced this downward trend. The profession enjoyed significant growth during this same period in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Virginia.
- How do you become a game designer?
You need a professional portfolio to convince an employer to hire you. An associate, bachelor's, or master's program gives you the chance to build a portfolio while gaining in-demand knowledge and skills. Also, you can network with peers and potential employers while earning a degree.
- Are game design degrees worth it?
Although you can learn many of the skills game designers need on your own, a degree can help you make your career goal a reality much faster. If you do not want to go into debt, consider earning a degree from a public school in your home state.
- Is game design computer science?
Although many careers in game design involve programming, multiple professions in the field -- producer, director, writer -- do not require computer programming expertise. However, expect to learn programming fundamentals during a game design program, as all game designers must still understand programming's essential role.